The choice of dietary supplements available in any given drugstore, let alone online, is vast. They promise to provide us with vitamins, minerals, and other vital nutrients in the form of pills, drops, capsules, and powders. Some of these can be truly useful while others are merely money-making fads for their producers, and some can even be quite harmful if used recklessly or purchased from an unreliable seller.
Vitamin capsules for expectant mothers, protein shakes for athletes, meal-replacement bars for weight loss, hormone pills for sleep, mineral drops to soothe anxiety, powdered amino acids to enhance performance, and even plain old herbal tea—all these and many more are classified as dietary supplements.
Such supplements are available to anyone without a doctor’s prescription, so they do not undergo the same strict testing protocols required for medicines. Legally, dietary supplements cannot claim to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”, but some can and do provide health benefits.
Ideally, we would absorb all of the nutrients our bodies need from fresh foods, clean drinking water, and plenty of sunshine to help us remain healthy and active. The daily value (DV) of the nutrients we need can be obtained naturally from whole food sources. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Dietary supplements can provide what the body is missing due to poor diet, environment, stressors, allergy, or illness. However, most supplements on the market today are synthetic—produced artificially in an industrial process. And not all supplements are equally well absorbed by the body. Your health regimen should be tailored to your body’s actual needs. Consult your doctor to decide which dietary supplements would be appropriate and useful for you.
While some supplements such as fish oil, probiotics, magnesium, and Vitamin D have been extensively researched, and their effects well known, the long-term effects of most dietary supplements remain unstudied or understudied. Many of the products flogged by the fitness and weight loss industries only come to our attention as heavily marketed trend products.
Although they do not follow the same protocols that drugs so, most countries do impose some regulations on dietary supplements. They must be properly labelled, listing ingredients and place of origin, and can only make limited claims. Reputable supplement companies follow strict health and safety guidelines during the manufacturing process. To ensure the dietary supplements you are taking are safe, buy clearly labelled products from registered companies.
The nutrients the body needs can be roughly categorized into macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and dietary fibre—and micronutrients—water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, microminerals, and trace minerals. There are supplements available in each of these categories.
Vitamins and minerals are the most common and best understood dietary supplements. They are essential as our bodies require them to convert food into energy, build bone, heal wounds, support the immune system, repair cells, and participate in hormone and enzyme production.
For the most part, a diverse diet including a variety of foods from all of the food groups—fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins, and certain fats and oils—will include all the necessary nutrients. If you are interested to find out how nutritious your own diet is, the easiest way to have your nutrient levels checked is by having a blood test.
If you find that some nutrients are missing from your diet, there are plenty of resources to tell you what foods contain them. For example, Calcium is found leafy green vegetables, fish eaten with bones such as sardines, and in dairy products and tofu. Iron rich foods include red meat, liver, beans, nuts, and dried fruit. Vitamin D, however, we mostly absorb from sunlight and dairy products. People living in northern regions tend to have low levels of vitamin D and taking supplements is recommended.
Proteins are mostly found in meat and dairy products, but vegetarians and vegans have found ways to include sufficient protein in their diets. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 in all, nine of which are considered essential. Rich sources of amino acids include quinoa, eggs, turkey, mushrooms, cottage cheese, and fish. Most fatty fish also contain essential fatty acids, such as Omega-3, which promote brain, eye, and heart health, and can relieve anxiety and depression.
Probiotics are live microorganisms found in yoghurt, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods that help maintain digestive health and boost your immune system. Dietary fibre—both soluble and insoluble—is essential for maintaining gut health by regulating the absorption of the foods we eat and helping waste pass smoothly from the body. It can also help us avoid certain chronic ailments such as ulcers, hernias, and haemorrhoids. Dietary fibre is the undigestible part of beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.
Botanicals are plants or plant-based products valued for their therapeutic or medicinal properties. There are too many to begin to list them here and we have just begun to study their many possible benefits.
Some of us have more difficulty getting all the necessary nutrients from food alone.
Vegetarians and vegans should track their levels of Vitamin D and Iron and consider supplementing Vitamin B12, Calcium, and Zinc, as these nutrients are mostly found in animal products. People with food allergies, celiac disease, or lactose intolerance can benefit from supplements that provide what they would otherwise get from foods they must avoid.
Women who are pregnant or are trying to conceive are urged to supplement folic acid, which protects against certain birth defects, and iron, which the body uses to make the haemoglobin that carries oxygen to the tissues; pregnant women need twice as much iron. Similarly, women who experience heavy periods may take iron supplements which reduce the effects of blood loss.
People whose calorie intake is restricted for one reason or another should also pay attention to their nutrient levels. If your daily calorie intake is 1600 kcal or less, it becomes increasingly difficult to get everything you need from food alone.
Sports nutrition is a growing multimillion dollar industry. The products focus on muscle building, performance enhancement, recovery, and weight loss.
These supplements include ingredients such as protein to help build and maintain muscles, essential amino acids to enhance endurance and speed post-work-out recovery, and creatine to provides muscles with short-term energy necessary for high-intensity activities. Stimulants such as caffeine are also often included.
Remember, sports supplements only work if used properly, together with a healthy and balanced diet and, perhaps most importantly, when paired with regular, high-level physical activity such as weightlifting and other high-intensity sports.
Mountains of protein powder consumed by athletic-looking people at the local gym may seem to do magic, but they cannot deliver a healthy body. The sports supplements marketed to amateur athletes are not always well researched and too many of us are taken in by marketing fads. Nutritionists remind us that any substance that is found in supplements can also be found in a balanced diet, which is the best source of nutrition for a healthy and active person.
For many of us, this is perhaps the most enticing group of dietary supplements. The various nutritional discoveries of the last century or so have allowed us to imagine a science-based, lab-produced, tailor-made diet that would provide exactly the right nutrients and not a calorie too much. But it seems we still have far to go before this dream can become a reality.
Weight-loss pills have been around for some time, but in the recent years many new products have emerged. They usually come in the form of a powder that can be dissolved in a drink or smoothie to instantly provide a fully balanced meal. The idea is alluring—not only to people who wish to limit their calorie intake, but to people with food allergies who must be vigilant when eating out, and to anyone who feels too busy to stop for three full meals a day.
Nutritionists tell us that many of these products do deliver what they promise. Nevertheless, they are still dietary supplements and should not be used to replace fresh food in the long term.
Meal replacements are sometimes prescribed for certain health conditions but choosing to regularly consume supplements in the place of food can be dangerous.
Weight loss supplements use natural and synthetic ingredients to reduce appetite, increase fat-burning, or reduce calorie intake by reducing the amount of nutrients that your body absorbs. Although the marketing promises great results, clinical trials rarely show significant and lasting weight loss. What’s more, meal replacement products are often sold through direct sales or multi-level marketing schemes making it difficult for consumers to know if they can rely on the quality of production, transportation, and storage for these products.
Be sure to read the labels on meal replacement products carefully. If the pleasant taste and heightened energy effects are achieved by adding sweeteners, you are better off saving your money. If the weight loss effect is achieved by diuretics that drive liquid from the body causing your body to shed pounds quickly, this is unsustainable. Look for products that contain a balanced nutrient profile with healthy fats, carbohydrates, protein, and fibre.
Remember, dietary supplements are just that—products that should be used only to supplement an already balanced diet. Too much of any substance—natural or synthetic—can cause an overdose that may be toxic to your body. Don’t rely on supplements to meet your nutritional needs. Eat fresh food instead. If you do choose to use supplements, be sure you know why and do your research to identify trustworthy suppliers. If in doubt, consult with a doctor or nutritionist.
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